Despite the divisive-ness of political discourse these days, most sensible Americans share common ground on most issues. They realize that on a variety of controversies abortion, affirmative action, religion in public life there are legitimate values that compete and must be pragmatically balanced.
For more than three decades, the Supreme Court has been able to define this common ground. Its complex process of getting there through split decisions based on opinions that concur and dissent in parts can seem magical. In fact, that magic has a human face to it: that of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. By being the practical-minded swing vote on the court, she has quietly become one of the most influential people in the U.S. and, at age 74, has let friends know that she has no plans to relinquish that role.
Plucked by Ronald Reagan in 1981 from a state appeals court in Arizona to be the first female on the Supreme Court, O'Connor established a reputation for seeking sensible outcomes on a case-by-case basis rather than developing a sweeping legal philosophy. By the 1990s, she had become the swing vote that most frequently determined the most important cases. That was evident in a 1992 landmark abortion ruling, cobbled together with partial concurrences, in which she reaffirmed Roe v. Wade while noting the legitimate state interests in protecting "the life of the fetus that may become a child." In the University of Michigan affirmative-action cases last year, she grounded her opinion in contemporary practical interests rather than immutable philosophic principles. "We expect," she wrote, "that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."
Her elegant, personal 2003 autobiography was titled, somewhat misleadingly, The Majesty of the Law. But her own majestic qualities are refreshingly devoid of regal pretense. They are marked instead by the humility and tolerance and restraint that are the true foundations of the constitutional principles that she endeavors both to balance and to obey.
Isaacson is the President of the Aspen Institute
From the Archive
Establishing Her Independence: Sandra Day O'Connor is still conservative, but on her own terms
Next Jill Tarter